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Immersion experience in Nicaragua continues to motivate students

Through UW-Eau Claire's three-credit "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" summer class, six students will spend three weeks immersed in the daily lives of Nicaraguan women as they study the struggle for women's rights in this Central American country.

The students — five from UW-Eau Claire and one from UW-La Crosse — will live with host families, attend classes, interact with experts and participate in field trips that will bring them in contact with everyone from Nicaraguan health care providers to garbage pickers.

Dr. Rose-Marie Avin, a professor of economics, and Meghan Mehlos, a lecturer in languages, will teach the women's studies course in Nicaragua June 1-21.

While in Nicaragua, students will have face-to-face class meetings where they will analyze readings and interact with Nicaraguan guest speakers who have expertise in topics ranging from women in the Revolution to contemporary women's rights issues.

This will be the fourth time the class has been offered at UW-Eau Claire. Read more about the "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" summer class.

Two UW-Eau Claire students who were part of the class in 2013 took a few minutes to share their thoughts about the experiences.

Danielle Decock — a native of Mankato, Minnesota, who will graduate in May — is a women's studies major and an environment, society and culture minor.

Erin Bernardy, a senior women's studies major and creative writing minor, is from La Crescent, Minnesota.

What motivated you to enroll in the class that took you to Nicaragua?

Danielle: I learned about the Nicaraguan study abroad program during a classroom presentation and I was immediately hooked by the theme of the program. I was most interested in the immersion aspect of the trip where the students have an opportunity to live with families in the neighborhood and learn about the lives of women within a different economic, social and political context.

Erin: I was drawn to this program because I know how important it is to situate my understanding of what it means to be a feminist and a social justice activist from a transnational perspective. Often by default, we assume the experiences and needs of people from a western, imperialist informed reality. This can perpetuate the binary of first world versus third world and create a hierarchy of women's realities around the world. This program offered a way of learning about the subjective realities of people in Nicaragua rooted in historical, political, cultural, economic and geographic conditions.

What were some of the highlights from your experience?

Danielle: One of my most memorable experiences was travelling about an hour outside of Leon and visiting with the women's organization, Xochilt-Acalt. This was an important learning moment for me as I realized the strength in grass-roots activism and its potential to end violence through community collaboration, education and support. It is essential that grass-roots activists work alongside activists within the policy-making realm in order to create change both on the micro and macro level.

Erin: We had the honor of having compassionate conversations with some of the most influential political activists in Latin America, including Sofia Montenegro, a feminist activists who dedicated her life to standing against a dictatorship through her membership as a guerrilla during the revolutionary war in the 1980s and now works to empower women through pushing for inclusive policy, providing micro-loans to women and fearlessly vocalizing the needs of women despite harsh political resistance.

We traveled around the country to meet with different women's groups including an indigenous women's cooperative on the beautiful Island of Ome Tepe and Xochilt-Acalt, a women's center in rural Northern Nicaragua dedicated to empowering women through land ownership and educational programming.

Not only did we have very educationally transformative adventures, we also had the opportunity to zip line (upside down even!) through a volcano, attend local events in the town of our home-stay families, travel independently during a free weekend, and engage in conversations and spend quality time with our patient, kind host families. My host family treated me like family and I was able to tag along at a baptism, a family reunion and attend the Running of the Bulls with my host siblings.

Who in Nicaragua made the greatest impression on you?

Danielle: A person who made a deep impression on me during my time in Nicaragua was one of our on-site coordinators, Marlia. Marlia was born and raised in Nicaragua and she has dedicated her life to activism and to breaking down machismo oppressions. She is a member of the local Youth for Democracy group. Marlia and a few of her friends shared their stories of activist work and the difficulties and challenges they face. It was surreal listening to their stories and imagining what they have been through as they struggle to create a more egalitarian society. Her strength, intelligence and courage continues to keep my fire lit as I engage in my own works of activism.

Erin: One of the people who had the greatest impact on me also was the young activist named Marlia. Just two weeks prior to our group arriving in Nicaragua, she was protesting at a social security building to advocate for elder rights when she and many other activists were confronted by police and government officials, beaten and taken to prison. Despite the danger she puts herself through to fight for social justice, she is fearless and will never back down. I am in awe of the passion and deep commitment to challenging systems of oppression that these activists have.

What would you tell students going to Nicaragua with this class in June?

Danielle: I learned more in three weeks than I could have possibly imagined. Discussion and readings from within the classroom while simultaneously living with locals enhanced my experience exponentially, and I am grateful for all I have learned about the history and political and economic status of Nicaragua and the works of activism that are in progress. I will always hold onto the knowledge I gained during this trip and implement it within my current works. 

Erin: Be open and embrace the different, yet equally important experiences of people you will encounter in Nicaragua. Nothing is black and white. The goal is not to understand how oppressed people are;the idea is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses, and the similarities and differences of the people and cultures we encounter along with our own country and culture. Embrace discomfort. We cannot grow unless we step outside of our comfort zones. Try new food. Go to the rodeo if you have a chance. Zip line in the canopy of a volcano even if it is terrifying. Ask questions and engage with as many locals as you can.

Photo credit: Mark Aumann